Friday, May 30, 2014

The Roots of "the Charleston"

From the book, Doin' the Charleston: Black Roots of American Popular Music & the Jenkins Orphanage Legacy. (East Atlantic Publishing, 2013)

The Roots of “The Charleston”:
Slavery, Minstrelsy, Cakewalks, Blues & Ragtime

The Jenkins Band of Charleston was nothing more than the product of a rich heritage. Where the the idea for a marching brass band of black kids playing jazzed-up military marches and dancing on the street to support an orphanage house come from? It was the culmination of a mixing of several different cultures with long traditions.  

In 1720 Charleston was the cultural center of the South and considered to be musical center the eastern seaboard in the 18th century. Not only was it the largest slave port in colonial America, it was also the port of entry for most professional artists arriving from Europe. In 1735, the first opera in the Colonies was performed in Charleston, the one-act ballad Flora: Or Hob in the Well. By 1735, musicians in Charleston were giving concerts in honor of St. Cecelia, the patron saint of music. By 1762, they organized the first musical society in colonial America - the St. Cecilia Society.

Franklin Street by Judy Beschta. The Jenkins Band performing in front of their orphanage house.
From 1741-1810 such a large numbers of slaves were imported from central Africa's Bantu-speaking areas that “the Bankongo culture of the Congo River area was well represented in South Carolina's early black majority.” Richard Jobson, an English sea captain, was sent to Africa by the Company of Adventurerers of London in 1620 to explore the Gambia River area. He published The Golden Trade or a Discovery of the River Gambra and the Golden Trade of the Aethopians. He observed:

There is without doubt, no people on the earth more naturally affected to the sound of musicke than these people; which the principall persons do hold as an ornament of their state . . . Also, if at any time the Kings or principall persons come unto us trading in the River, they will have their musicke playing before them.

In 1720 James Houstoun wrote, “I visited King Conny in his Castle, who received me with the usual ceremonies of their Country, Musicke, Drums and Horns.” Edward Bowdich, gave a description of an African festival in his book Mission from Cape Coast to Ashantee. Bowdich was sent to Africa in 1817 by the African Committee of London to establish commercial relations with the Ashanti. He was also an amateur musician. He recorded African melodies in notation, described instruments and performances.

Upwards of 5000 people, the greater part warriors, met us with awful bursts of martial music, discordant only in its mixture; for horns, drums, rattles and gong-gongs were all exerted with a seal bordering on phrenzy (sic) . . . We were halted whilst the captains performed their Pyrrhic dance in the centre of a circle formed by their warriors. More than one hundred bands burst at once on our arrival, [all playing] the peculiar airs of their several chiefs; the horns flourished their defiance [fanfare melodies], with the beating of innumerable drums and metal instruments, and then yielded for a while to the soft breathings of their long flutes, which were truly harmonious; and a pleasing instrument, like a bagpipe without the drone, was happily blended.

For almost every occasion in the life of the community and individual there was appropriate music. Music was important from birth to death. Music accompanied hunting expeditions; celebrations, religious rites, fishing and boating songs, warrior songs, and cooperative work-songs, chanted and sung while doing communal tasks. Many festivals lasted several days. Bowdich observed that the Ashanti thought it “absurd” to worship God in any way other than through singing and chanting.

Among the peoples of Angola (now Congo & Zaire) music was used in court trials - evidence and arguments were often presented with the accompaniment of drums, instruments and songs. But the majority part of music in Africa took place in less formal circumstances, day-to-day life was filled with music and singing.

Every village had master musicians, singers and instrumentalists who provided music for formal activities. Many served a function similar to that of the Irish bard, who sings songs of history and culture. Master musicians were highly esteemed in the culture, often sitting with royalty.

Percussive instruments were the most common encountered by English travelers. Fashioned out of hollowed tree trunks, elaborately carved, were open at one end, and covered at the head by animal skins. Other instruments included a variety of bells, xylophones, etc . . . rattles, flutes, lutes, whistles, trumpets made from elephant tusks, fiddles were made out of a narrow box, covered by alligator or antelope skin, and strings made out of horse or cow hair, several hairs twisted together for a different sound.

The most exotic thing witnessed by the early European travelers was the dance rituals. The observed that dancing was the “diversion of the evenings” and that “all the night the people continue dancing, until he that playes be quite tyred out.” When musicians took their rest, they were replaced by others, and the dancing continued. Like music, dancing was a form of communication and creative expression and sheer recreation.

John Atkins, author of A Voyage to Guinea, Brasil, and the West Indies describes a dance in Sierra Leone.

Men and Women make a Ring in an open part of the Town, and one at a time shews his Skill in Antick Motions and Gesticulations, yet with a great deal of Agility, the company making the Musick by clapping their hands together during the time, helped by the louder noise of two or three Drums.

Although the musical cultures of West Africa varied from nation to nation during the slave-trade, the cultures featured enough in common to constitute an identifiable heritage for Africans in the New World. The number of Africans transported to the New World on the Middle Passage is unknown. It has been estimated from 10 to 15 million. By 1700, the 'peculiar institution” was a reality throughout the 13 American colonies. Slaves were removed from their homes in chains and transported to the New World, usually separated from their families and communities. But each individual who survived the Middle Passage, retained memories of the rich cultural traditions from the motherland.

As the Africans spread up and down the eastern seaboard, these African traditions of song, dance and culture were passed down to children. Blacks of colonial America left few written records of their activities. However, there is some documentation that gives some support that slaves were musical. Newspaper published accounts of slaves for sale, or notices of runaway slaves. Such as:

TO BE SOLD. A Negro Indian Man slave, about forty years of age, well known in town, being a fiddler. [New York Gazette-Post-Boy, June 21, 1748]
TO BE SOLD. A young healthy Negro fellow who has been used to wait on a Gentlemen (sic) and plays extremely well on the French horn. [Virginia Gazette, March 1766]
CEASAR: Absented himself from my Plantation . . . plays well on the French horn. [South Carolina Gazette, April 19, 1770)
RUN AWAY: Dick, a mulatto fellow . . . a remarkable whistler and plays on the Violin. [South Carolina Gazette, June 4, 1772]

Singing became part of a slave’s lives. In 1737 a Methodist hymnal was published in Charles Town, A Collection of Psalms and Hymns became the first in a long line of Methodist hymnbooks. Charles Wesley, one of the greatest hymn writers in history, had been on board a ship bound for America in 1735 and he was inspired by the music of the Moravians on board. The singing of hymns became an integral part of the Methodist worship service, and thus Negro worship through the years in America.

The Methodist church welcomed blacks from its inception. Music was an integral part of Methodist worship and blacks embraced the musicality of the service. The camp meeting became a phenomenon during the “Second Awakening” from 1780-1830, led by Methodists. Often, there were more blacks than whites at the meetings.

Methodist Camp Meeting.    Library of Congress
Swedish novelist Fredrika Bremer in her book The Homes of the New World [New York, 1853] described a camp meeting.

A magnificent choir! Most likely the sound proceeded from the black portion of the assembly, as their number was three times that of whites, and their voices are naturally beautiful and pure.

Bremer also reported that the singing continued long into the night. Even though she retired at midnight she wrote:

On the black side [of the camp] . . . the tents were still full of religious exaltation, each separate tent presenting some new phrases . . . In one, a song of the spiritual Canaan was being sung excellently . . . At half past five [in the morning] the hymns of the Negroes were still to be heard on all sides.

John Fanning Watson [Methodist Error, Trenton, NJ, 1819] reported that “their shouts and singing were so very boisterous that that singing of the white congregation was often completely drowned in the echoes and reverberations of the colored people's tumultuous strains.”

The camp meeting also brought a revolt by the blacks against the staid singing of the white religious establishment. Since there were no hymnbooks and the majority of the camp followers were illiterate, a new kind of singing developed. Choruses and refrains were added, and repeated often, so those in the crowd could join. Often, songs were composed on the spot, by enthusiastic blacks in the crowd. Call-and-response shouts were an early form of blues-styled music, a “functional expression ... style without accompaniment or harmony and unbounded by the formality of any particular musical structure.” This pre-blues music was often heard in slave ring shouts and field hollers.

By the time of the American Revolution blacks were an integral part of colonial society. They participated in musical activities any way they could - singing psalms and hymns in the meetinghouses. Although the African had the inclination toward music-making, he arrived in the New World empty handed. He had to acquaint himself with new and often strange instruments. To be sure, some of the white man's instruments were similar to those in Africa, but the slave had to adjust to the ways of his white masters.

Slaves on great plantations or living in great homes of wealthy whites were exposed to a high level of cultural activity. Many white children were taught instruments by traveling teachers and they often taught their slaves to play the instrument also - flutes and violins. There is some evidence that in Charles Town some slaves were given lessons by professional musicians.

A school for slaves in Charleston in 1740 was run by Mr. Boulson, under the auspices of Methodist evangelist George Whitefield. A dancing school and concert room doubled as a school room for slaves, where they were taught to play music. In return, slaves often played the fiddle for dancing in the home and for the dancing classes for white children.
South Carolina Gazette, September 17, 1737.

If any gentlemen living in the Country are disposed to send their children to Charlestown, they may be boarded with George Logan, who also intends to open his School to teach to dance, next Monday being the 19th Instant. He will likewise go into the Country if he meets with Encouragement. Any white Person that plays on the Violin, or a Negro may be employ'd by the said Logan living in Union Street (currently State Street).

Slaves sang and danced in the traditional African ways on the plantation, but there is very little written documentation of that. However, there is an eyewitness account of African music used in 1739 in Charles Town during the slave uprising called the Stono Rebellion.
According to one account that evening “they halted in a field and set to dancing, Singing and beating Drums to draw more Negroes to them.” In less than twenty-four hours they had grown into a mob of “above sixty, some say a hundred,” marched ten miles and killed at least twenty-five whites. 

The Council had been debating a Negro Act. After the Stono Rebellion they stopped debating and quickly approved the Act. Slaves would no longer be allowed to travel without written permission. They could not assemble in groups without the presence of whites. They were forbidden to raise their own food, possess money, or learn to read. The use of drums, horns and other "loud instruments" that might be used by slaves to communicate with each other was forbidden. Some of these restrictions had been in effect before the Negro Act, but now they were strictly enforced. The punishment for a minor offense was death – hanging followed by decapitation, or being burned alive.

Traditionally, twice a year, slaves were given a several days respite from work. Their favorite form of entertainment was dancing to fiddle music. Fiddlers were much sought-after to play for the dancing of their masters at balls, assemblies and other entertainments. As the largest and most elite urban center in the South, Charles Town offered a wide variety of chances for developing musical skills.

Almost from the beginning, the Africans would have encountered another group of exiles in North America - a people the English regarded just as barbarous, uncivilized (and musical) as the Africans, the Celts. Some fifty thousand Irish slaves /indentured servants were sent to work the plantations of Virginia, Barbados and South Carolina. The 1790 census lists 200,000 Americans who claimed Scots – Irish ancestry.

All the music from African has one common theme which drastically differs from European music. Refined European music masters took a stringed instrument – the violin - and isolated the tone, looking for as much resonance and enhancement as possible – the violin string caressed by a bow and allowed to breathe. The African method is to “corrupt the sound of the strings – the banjo sting plucked against a drumhead, again and again.”

The Minstrel Show
The minstrel show became the institution through which white America plundered, diluted, misinterpreted, misunderstood, ridiculed, and ultimately, loved the music and the culture of black America.

Blackface minstrelsy emerged during the 1820s and was the white’s exploitation of the slave's style of music and dancing. With their faces blackened by burnt cork whites took to the stage to sing “Negro songs”, perform “Negro dances” and tell jokes about slaves. They called it “coon music.”

Two types of blackface characters developed: Jim Crow - a caricature of a plantation slave with ragged clothes and thick childlike dialect and intellect; and Zip Coon - a dandy dressed in fine clothes who boasted of his success with women.

Jim Crow
By the early 19th century blackface performers such as George Nichols, George Washington Dixon, and Thomas Dartmouth Rice, called “Daddy Rice, Father of American Minstrelsy” were treating blacks as buffoons, ridiculing their behavior. Rice heard the singing of an old deformed stable-groom and came up with the idea of a stage show using an impersonation of the old slave. Song and dance, old clothes and blackface together became a huge success and Rice became a rich man. He traveled from city to city, town to town, theater to theatre and became known as “Jim Crow Rice.” He became one of America’s first musical superstars.
The Virginia Minstrels became the first truly American band, playing America music. In a New York boarding house in 1842, Billy Whitlock added his percussive banjo to Dan Emmett’s fiddle and created something new and dangerous, at least for white folks. Before the Virginia Minstrels, white performers kept the fiddle (white) and its music segregated from the banjo (black) and its music. Whitlock and Emmett were white men with nappy wigs on their heads and large quantities of burnt cork on their face playing Negro music. They would dance and sing, pick the banjo and rock the bow, give mangled speeches and tell their corny jokes. And American white audiences could not get enough of it.

The Virginian Minstrels kicked off what probably can be termed the first American musical craze. As in the jazz craze of the 1920s, the rock’n’roll craze of the 1950s, or the gangsta rap craze of the 1990s, public demand was such that everyone thought they should give minstrelsy a try.

By the 1840s, the minstrel show had become one of the central events in the culture of the Democratic party and by the Civil War the minstrel show had become world famous and respectable. Late in his life Mark Twain fondly remembered the "old time nigger show" with its colorful comic darkies and its rousing songs and dances.

The Virginia Minstrels organized a full-length minstrel show featuring a quartet of performers. They toured in Europe to great acclaim. Another group called the Christy Minstrels, featuring E.P. and George Christie organized in 1844 and became the most popular attraction for the next decade. Soon there were hundreds of minstrel shows traveling across the country and touring Europe. For almost 50 years, Minstrel shows were the most popular form of theatrical entertainment in America and the rest of the world. To get new material, performers visited plantations, listened to the black men singing in the rice and cotton fields, on steamboats and docks, in the tobacco factories. The instruments used were banjos, tambourines, fiddles and bone castanets. E.P. Christie said that the art of the white minstrel was “to reproduce the life of the plantation darky.”

Stephen Foster, the greatest songwriter of the 19th century wrote hundreds of songs for minstrel shows, including “Oh! Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” “My Old Kentucky Home” and “Old Black Joe.” These songs were performed by the Christie Minstrels to great acclaim.
William Henry Lane, called Master Juba, became the first black performer to travel with minstrel groups. Charles Dickens watched Juba perform in New York and called Juba “the greatest dancer known.”

The popularity of minstrel shows established the stereotype of black men- shiftless, irresponsible, happy-go-lucky darkies - that persisted well into the 20th century on the vaudeville stage, musical comedy, movie screen, radio, and television. And yet, despite this racist stereotype, blackface minstrelsy was at its core a tribute to African music and dance and it opened the door for black culture to enter the American mainstream.

After Emancipation black musicians began to open their own minstrel shows – the all-black Georgia Minstrels being the first. They were so successful that the term “Georgia Minstrel” became synonymous with Black minstrels. White minstrel groups continued to bill themselves as “Nigger Minstrels.” One ironic twist: to be taken seriously as Coons, black (Georgia) minstrels also used burnt cork on their skins and whitened their lips. The public expected all Coons to be of a certain shade!

Later, in the twentieth century, several of the most famous minstrels were actually black men who wore makeup--the most famous being Bert Williams, who performed in blackface well into the 1920s. The first talking picture, "The Jazz Singer," (1927) was a blackface film. Both Judy Garland and Bing Crosby did movies with blackface sequences.

Bert Williams Library of Congress 
Black minstrel shows differed from white minstrels in one important detail – they were better! As long as they didn’t rock the boat, as long as they played the cliqued plantation darkie, singing and jive shucking, black performers could be successful. Of course, it was demeaning to the Negro race, but when a post-Civil War black man could make $50 a week, many performers swallowed their pride, took the money, fed their families and went on with the show.

By the late 1870s minstrel shows introduced a new element: dancing in pairs – a male and female – flinging their legs up in the air and throwing their heads back in wild abandon - the Cakewalk.

Leigh Whipple related a story told to him by his childhood nanny in 1901.

Us slaves watched white folks' parties where the guests danced a minuet and then paraded in a grand march, with the ladies and gentlemen going different ways and then meeting again, arm in arm, and marching down the center together. Then we'd do it too, but we used to mock 'em every step. Sometimes the white folks noticed it, but they seemed to like it; I guess they thought we couldn't dance any better.

Ex-ragtime entertainer Shepard Edmonds in 1950 remembered stories told to him by his parents from Tennessee.

The cake walk was originally a plantation dance, just a happy movement they did to the banjo music because they couldn't stand still. It was generally on Sundays, when there was little work, that the slaves both young and old would dress up in hand-me-down finery to do a high-kicking, prancing walk-around. They did a take-off on the manners of the white folks in the "big house," but their masters, who gathered around to watch the fun, missed the point. It's supposed to be that the custom of a prize started with the master giving a cake to the couple that did the proudest movement.

In the Journal of Social History (1981) B. Baldwin, states the Cakewalk was meant "to satirize the competing culture of supposedly 'superior' whites. Slaveholders were able to dismiss its threat in their own minds by considering it as a simple performance which existed for their own pleasure."

Post Civil War America fell in love with military band music. In the 1880s these military bands began to mix with minstrel shows. Each minstrel show paraded into town prancing behind a brass band. W.C. Handy, bandleader of Marhara’s Minstrels, stated “the procession circled on the public square, and the band played a program of classical overtures plus a medley of popular airs for the throngs that assembled there in the open.” Slowly, the minstrel brass band began to play more and more Coon music, and less classical.

The American record industry started in 1889 or 1890 when a certain distributor of Edison phonographs began quietly attaching coin boxes to the devices. This unsung genius then arranged to have professional musicians do their thing for the wax cylinder, over and over again (there was no way of duplicating the early cylinders.) He then put the ungainly devices in places guaranteed to have high pedestrian traffic, chiefly saloons and drugstores - the first jukeboxes. Even though the selections were limited, the sound was atrocious and you had to listen through rubber ear-tube it caught on pretty much instantly. One New Orleans drug store took in about $500 a month from theirs. The cylinders wore out so fast they had to send a boy on a bicycle around to change them three times a day.

Unfortunately, the first thirty-five years of the recording industry are lost to history. Most cylinders were produced in miniscule quantities, and those five or ten or fifty copies have since all been broken, erased or eaten up by mildew. Many discs were melted down in World War II for recycling.

In 1891, there were suddenly two worlds of American music: the one that was made on record and the one that didn’t. The one that was recorded was mainly Northern, civilized, middle class and white. The music was pretty and boring. The unrecorded world was mostly Southern, rural, poor and black. Their music was rough, dangerous and not boring.
Music mythology holds that this unrecorded rough music first reached mass notice at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. The Expo drew almost thirty million people in the six months it was open, including every cardsharp, pool hustler and whore in the Mideast. Along with the whores came the so-called “whorehouse professors,” the black gentlemen whose jangly piano playing was the soundtrack of the saloon night life. The music was called Ragtime.

A popular ragtime song, “Syncopated Sandy” by Ned Wayburn and Stanley Whiting, described the new sound in the preface of the sheet music:

RAG-TIME … originated with the negroes and is characteristic of their people. The negroe in playing the piano, strikes the keys with the same time and measure that he taps the floor with his heels and toes in dancing, thereby obtaining a peculiarly accented time effect which he terms RAG-TIME.

If minstrel music was black banjo music, then ragtime was black piano music, a natural development of the Africanized jigs and reels that the minstrels exploited in the 1840s.
The rhythm was the same for minstrel music and ragtime, but minstrel songs always relied on the banjo, and you can’t hold a note on the banjo, so the player had to hit a lot of notes. When brass bands were added to the minstrel shows the music became less reliant on the chunky banjo rhythm and more melodic. Ragtime was developed on the piano and combined the banjo’s numerous notes with the brass band’s march-feel. Saloon and brothel pianists needed music that was lively, loud and swinging. By taking the simple syncopations of the minstrel tunes, complicating them and playing the cross rhythms off against each other these pianists begin develop the style that we call ragtime.

There are certain unanswerable questions. Which came the first, the chicken or the egg? is a question we all pondered as a child. Another puzzling question: What is ragtime? Is it jazz or blues? Is it jazz and blues? What is jazz and what is blues? Jazz is American and blues is African, right? Or … is blues American and jazz African? We all know that jazz is city and blues is country, right? Maybe. Ragtime + Blues = Jazz. If there was no Blues, there would be no jazz.

David Wondrich, in his 2003 book Stomp and Swerve: American Music Gets Hot says
Blues is slavery’s first child, conceived in the miscegenation between field-holler and big-house hymn, born in a cotton field, raised in a juke joint, nursed on knife-drawn blood and cheap corn whiskey, as old as the swamps and young as last Saturday night. There is a spoonful of blues in every ragtime, jazz, country, soul, rock ‘n’roll and rap song ever written.

In 1953, Frederick Law Olmstead (garden landscape artist of Central Park and the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC) heard a South Carolina railroad gang singing on the job:

One raised such a sound as I had never heard before, a long musical shout, rising and falling and breaking into falsetto, his voice ringing through the woods … like a bugle call. As he finished, the melody was caught up by another, and then another, then by several in chorus.

By the 20th century the blues had permeated the “Negro Spiritual” imported from Africa and nurtured on the plantation. Threads of it were woven into minstrel and ragtime music. Blues was the original protest music, “colored folks’ opera.” Blues was mournful, spiteful, negative and devoid of hope. Ragtime was joyful, fun and exuberant; it brought hope to African music.

By 1900 most brass bands had picked up on the new sound of ragtime. John Philip Sousa, the undisputed king of popular music at the time, famously stated that “there was no hierarchy in art.” However, most musicians still perceived that a brass band was inferior to a symphony orchestra. The intellectual bourgeoisie thought a brass band sounded liked “a threshing machine through which live cats are being chased.”

John Philip Sousa conducting his marching band.
Nonetheless, Sousa began to introduce “polkas and cake walks” in his musical programs for white audiences. And more boldly, his trombone player, Arthur Pryor, began to smear and slur his notes in a most unconventional way and coming up with ragged musical arrangements. It may not have been jazz (yet) but it was getting close. And the Jenkins Band exported that music with an authenticity and hubris that made every listener take notice.